Measuring social influence for business and government

Developing new analysis tools that determine the extent to which social networks influence decision-making.

Our decisions are often far less informed and far more socially driven than we would like to think. Big data, such as sales figures, record where and when the decision to buy a product was made, but they don’t measure social influence directly.

Research by Professor Alex Bentley and his colleagues in the University of Bristol's Department of Anthropology and Archaeology has helped unlock what these datasets can say indirectly about how decisions are made and how this may change with time and across communities.

It is often assumed that patterns of behaviour in a society - such as baby names that go in and out of fashion - are a reflection of the informed decisions individuals make within that society. However, humans are inherently social creatures and sometimes our decisions are based simply on copying the behaviours we see.

Lone wolf or copy cat 

When and why we indiscriminately copy others is a relatively underdeveloped area of study within the broader field of decision theory. Yet in this digital age, where we are overwhelmed by information, have access to countless interchangeable choices and belong to extensive social networks, it isn’t surprising that we sometimes decide to just follow the masses. Bentley uses models to further our understanding of collective ‘herding’ behaviour in society and he tests these models against real-world phenomena. He and his colleagues have translated this research into practical tools that allow them to extract two elusive yet important components of decision-making - social influence and transparency of choice.

‘This research gives us a toolkit for empirical data that are available on a population scale,’ said Bentley. ‘And judging to what degree the decisions are informed, social or not social.’

For over a decade, Bentley has presented these tools and their underpinning research in the popular media. In 2011, he co-authored the book ‘I’ll Have What She’s Having: Mapping Social Behaviour’ with Mark Earls and Michael O’Brien. This subsequently led to a flood of invited articles for the popular press, industry and government publications, and public speaking events that helped these ideas permeate through the business world.

Research leads to changes in marketing approaches 

Mapping out where decisions fall on a scale of informed choice and social influence can have broad applications for marketing or other efforts to change behaviour. Bentley maintains that a majority of behaviours – vaccinations, charitable giving, music downloads and energy usage — are influenced within social networks. The question is how strongly influenced and how transparently. We may choose our charities based on who our family have given to, but we then make music choices influenced by popularity among virtual strangers. When people are influenced by particular individuals in their network - such as their mother - strategies should focus on those individuals. When people copy others more randomly, as in the case of music downloads, it makes more sense to generate critical mass for the product or behaviour.

In 2012, Anomaly Communications, who were working with Sony Electronics Europe, applied Bentley’s social-copying models in their analysis of portable electronics sales across different European countries. Their analysis found that certain segments of the digital camera market were characterised by consumers looking for ‘expert’ opinion while other segments were characterised by indiscriminate copying. The patterns differed geographically, which allowed Sony and Anomaly to customise their marketing strategies accordingly.

A major advantage of the approach developed by Bentley and his colleagues is that it makes use of existing big data records. Many analyses use targeted surveys to find out why consumers make the choices they make. Yet what consumers say can often be at odds with what they do. These tools find patterns in data from actual consumer behaviours rather than their opinions.

Working with co-author Mark Earls and his consulting firm HERD, Bentley’s research has broad applications, including within economic consultancy, the pharmaceutical industry and government. Clients who have benefitted include EA Games, Unilever and The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


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